Thursday, July 31, 2008

Wonders of the Animal Kingdom #2: The Rosy-Lipped Batfish

Baruch meshaneh habriyos, or Baruch shekachah lo be'olamo?

Classic Zoo Sign

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Lion Bites Rabbi

Another video clip from my visit to Lion Park in South Africa. Thank goodness for my Timberland jacket!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Cheetah Encounter

Here is a video clip of my encounter last Thursday with Masai, a full-grown male cheetah, at Lion Park in South Africa. Listen to his purr! He started to lick my hand and it felt like sandpaper; the manager warned me not to let him lick it for too long, as he would take the skin right off my hand!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

BREAKING: Leopard Kills Croc!

This just in:
"The astonishing spectacle of a leopard savaging a crocodile has been captured for the first time on camera. A series of incredible pictures taken at a South African game reserve document the first known time that a leopard has taken on and defeated one of the fearsome reptiles."
The full story and a sequence of amazing pictures is here.
This brings new depth to the Sages' presentation of the leopard as the embodiment of brazenness!

(Hat tip: Ari M.)

Back from Africa!

I returned from Africa, safe and sound and with thousands of photos! Sorry for the absence of postings. I hope to catch up with notes from my trip, as well as info on forthcoming programs taking place this August in the U.S.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Safari Gallery

I'm so behind with posts, that I decided to just post my whole gallery of my best pictures from the Sabi safari. You can see the Picasa album here. This has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Elephant Encounter

There are few things as awe-inspiring as encountering a wild African elephant. We saw elephants on several occasions, and each time it was breathtaking. You have to be very careful, as if they get too nervous, they will charge, with deadly results. The first signs of such a danger are the elephant flaring its ears and tossing its head, which is the signal for you to make a speedy getaway. The elephant in this picture was a juvenile, who made a threat display. But he was just displaying teenage braggadocio and it wasn't a problem. Later, I will post pictures of the matriarch (female leader of the herd) who made a serious threat.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Cape Town Gallery

I've uploaded a lot of pictures from my visit to Cape Town. You can see them in a Picasa Web Album

Leopard in the camp!

(I'm a little behind with posts, but I hope to catch up!)
Still disappointed from the morning's leopard encounter when I didn't have a battery in my D-SLR, I made double-sure that I had everything before heading out from the camp for our afternoon game drive. Of course, there's no guarantee of sightings; sometimes you can go for three hours and not see anything. But as our land-rover went out of the gate, a leopard shot across the road and into the camp! There's a rule in the camp that at night, you are not allowed to walk to your cabin without a ranger escorting you, and now we knew why!
Quickly we turned the car around and headed back into the camp. Meanwhile, another land-rover was coming out, and they managed to head off the leopard. It came out of the camp and slinked into the dense bushes. We went off-road and crashed around in the undergrowth for a while, catching glimpses of it here and there. Finally, we ended up very close to it, and I managed to take this terrific picture of it. It came out really well, and more than made up for the morning's disappointment!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

I love my cabin

Sure, it's got a gigantic bedroom, an even bigger bathroom, a personalized weather forecast by my bed each day, and internet. But the greatest thing about my cabin at Sabi Sabi game lodge is that there is a four-foot monitor lizard living under the patio. I first noticed a long scaly tail disappearing around the corner as I came into the cabin on my first day, and after some careful ambushing I managed to snap this picture. The monitor is called koach in the Torah, probably after its great size and power, but what impressed me most about this reptile was its beautiful coloration.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A Drive at Dawn in the Bushveldt

The next morning, we were woken at 5:30 am for the morning game drive. It was FREEZING. We were given blankets and hot water bottles, but we still shivered. The temperature range here is astonishing - from zero degrees at night to 35 during the day!
After extensive tracking, we came across our quarry: a male leopard.
To my intense frustration, I realized that I had left the battery for my D-SLR camera back in the lodge! Luckily I had a point-and-shoot with me as backup, and the picture came out fairly well.
Leopards are not as large as lions or tigers. The Israeli subspecies weighs up to about eighty pounds, the African around two hundred. Yet, fiercely brazen, they take on prey many times their own size. In the words of the curator of the Hai-Bar nature reserve of the Negev, Bill Clark: “They don’t have the speed of a cheetah, nor can they claim the brute force of a lion. Instead, they rely on their wits. They’re smart, and, pound for pound, they’re the scrappiest of the big cats... No other predator confronts its victims with such rampaging fury.”
And thus we find the Mishnah telling us:
"Be as bold as a leopard to do the will of your Father in Heaven" (Pirkei Avos)
I have a fair amount of material on leopards in my book Seasons of Life, and I have much more in my forthcoming Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom; hopefully it will see the light of day within a year or two. Meanwhile, here's an important lesson that I learned this morning: Always make sure that you have a battery in your camera!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

In the jungle, the mighty jungle...

We arrived at Sabi Sands airstrip - just a strip of dirt in the bushveldt, with a cabin containing bathrooms, and a fleet of jeeps waiting to take us to the lodge. After a quick meeting at the lodge, we set out on our first game drive, as the sun sank beneath the horizon. It was not long before we came across a magnificent sight: a pride of lions, including adult females and young males. They were just lying down, licking themselves, occasionally walking around a little. Some walked right around the jeep; I could have reached out and touched them, had I been incredibly stupid. While I have been on safari before, this was my first sighting of lions. It was truly remarkable, and it was even more amazing that they were so oblivious to our presence.

Off to the Safari!

We finished up in Cape Town with dinner at the local restaurant, with the (Jewish) leader of the opposition in the South African government as our guest speaker. Then, early Monday morning, it was off to the safari! We first flew by commercial airline to Johannesburg, then we changed to three small chartered aircraft to fly direct to the private game reserve of Sabi Sabi. These were 18-seater propeller airplanes; not the smallest I've ever been in (I once piloted a two-seater airplane) but still much smaller than the usual airliner! I was pretty sure that I could hear the hamsters spinning the wheels to keep the propellers turning.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Edge of the World

After the hearts and penguins, we traveled to the tip of Cape Point. Here we ascended via the "Flying Dutchman" Fernicular - a cross between a train and a cable car. It is pulled up a very steep track via cable, with both horizontal and vertical angle changing. Upon emerging at the top, there are steps to climb to the lighthouse. From here, you are standing right on the south-western tip of Africa, with the Atlantic on your left and the Pacific on your right. The view of the ocean all around is incredible. A sign-post shows the distance to various important places in the world, including New York, London and Jerusalem!

The Penguins of Boulder Beach

We ate lunch in Simon's Town, a picturesque seaside village and naval dock. Just a short distance from this was Boulder Beach, which was originally for people but was taken over by penguins. These are African Jackass penguins, which do not need the cold conditions of Antarctic penguins. There were a few hundred scattered in various places around the beach, both adults and young, and they were every bit as adorable as you might expect!
There's a traditional idea in Judaism that the difference between animals, as purely physical creatures, and humans, as beings that combine the physical and the spiritual, is reflected in posture. Animals walk on all fours, facing the ground, symbolizing their physicality, whereas humans stand erect, reaching towards the heavens, symbolizing the way in which we combine the physical and the spiritual.
But what about penguins? They stand up like people, which is precisely what makes them so adorable. Do they undermine this idea?
The answer is, absolutely not. But you'll have to read Man And Beast to find out why... unless you can figure out the answer on your own!

The Heart of Cape Town

Cape Town has a beautiful climate – warm and sunny. But not in July. July is the winter in South Africa, and Cape Town can get hit hard. And on this Sunday morning, it was pouring with rain.
This ruined our plans to ascend Table Mountain. Instead, we visited a place that far exceeded our expectations – the Heart of Cape Town Museum. This museum commemorates the world’s first ever heart transplant, performed in South Africa by Dr. Cris Barnaard. We began with looking at the experimental heart transplants performed on dogs. Bizarrely, one related experiment including the successful transplantation of a dog’s head onto the neck of another dog, resulting in a healthy two-headed dog!
We learned about the moving story of the first transplant recipient and donor, the medical challenges involved, the extraordinary drive of Dr. Barnaard, the fame and glory resulting from his success, and the resultant catastrophe when American doctors attempted to copy his success but failed again and again. We also saw the original heart from Dr. Barnaard's first transplant itself, preserved in perspex. It was much more interesting than we expected, and I recommend it for anyone stuck in Cape Town on a rainy morning!
(Of particular Torah interest is that the heart was traditionally thought to be the seat of our emotions, but we now accept that our emotions reside in the brain, and the heart is merely a physical blood-pumping organ.)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Shabbos in Cape Town

On Friday, I met up with my group, American Friends of Shaarei Tzedek, about sixty people altogether. We are staying at the Camps Bay Hotel, situated on the seafront. On Friday night, we davenned at the local shul, and then we were joined by a special guest for dinner: F. W. De Klerk, former President of South Africa, ender of Apartheid, and joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela. He was very interesting, as was his wife, who protested that people were talking during the singing of Shalom Aleichem!
De Klerk spoke about how his former support of apartheid was not due to his being evil, but rather his vision was identical with what much of the world wants for Israel today: two states for two peoples. However, because the whites were not willing to give up enough land, and the blacks were not happy with the situation, it ended up being very cruel to the blacks and he realized that the plan was not working.
Lots more to write, especially about all the stuff we did today, but no time right now. Tomorrow we are flying to Johannesburg and then transferring to a light aircraft to Sabi Sands reserve; I hope to be able to write on the first plane and upload while changing planes!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Jews and Ostriches

Jews and ostriches... what comes to mind?

Well, there's discussion in the Torah of ostriches - in Vayikra they are listed as being non-kosher, and they are mentioned in the book of Iyov and other places as being cruel.

Then there is the old custom in some parts of the world to hang ostrich eggs in shuls. This is due to the ancient belief that ostriches incubate their eggs by staring at them, emitting energy from their eyes. Accordingly, ostrich eggs were hung in shuls to remind people of the power of kavanah.

But here in South Africa, there's a different connection between ostriches and Jews. At the turn of the twentieth century, ostrich feathers were all the rage in women's fashions. A town called Oudtshoorn in South Africa emerged as the ostrich farming capital of the world, and it was a business that was dominated by Jews. The Jews of Oudtshoorn were very religious, and the town became such a center of Torah that it became known as "the Jerusalem of Africa."

Ostrich feathers have long since fallen out of fashion, and the Jewish community of Oudtshoorn now numbers only fourteen families, all religious. The book pictured above is a commemoration of the remarkable days of the ostrich Jerusalem in Africa.

(Thanks to the Jewish Museum of Cape Town for permission to take this picture.)

Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Bird in the Hand

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. So rather than spend all my time here searching for wild animals - where there is never a guarantee of success - I am also looking for unique opportunities to meet captive animals.

One such opportunity came today at Spier Eagle Encounters. Unfortunately the weather was appalling, so there were no shows. But I was able to put on a falconer's glove and hold two magnificent birds of prey: a Wahlberg's eagle and a huge Verreaux's eagle. The latter was less accustomed to being held, and had to be kept hooded so as to ensure that it would remain calm. I was amazed at how heavy it was - about twelve pounds. I could feel the strength of its talons even through the very heavy glove; without the glove, it would have pierced my flesh to the bone without even trying. Large eagles are so powerful that in some parts of the world, people train them to hunt wolves. An eagle can plunge out of the sky with such force that it can smash into the back of a wolf's skull and kill it. While I have handled numerous birds of prey in the past, this was my first encounter with eagles, and it was awe-inspiring.

On my way out of Spier, I saw a slave bell, which is a relic of the old South Africa. This large bell, mounted about twenty feet up in the air, would be rung to sound the alarm in the event that slaves escaped! How times have changed.

The Only Store Of Its Kind!

On the way back from our shark expedition, I noticed a store with the odd name of "Baboon Matters." The name alone was intriguing, but even more fascinating was the billboard outside, which advertised is as "The World's Only Baboon Store!" I had to go in.

No, they didn't sell baboons. But they did sell every possible baboon-related artefact, and for a good reason.

Baboon Matters is not just a store; it is an organization run by people who are trying to solve the southern peninsula's Big Baboon Problem. The cape of South Africa is no longer the rough jungle that it used to be, where hippo and crocodile roamed. It is now quite heavily populated, although leopards still roam. But a serious problem is created by baboons. About two hundred and fifty of these large, powerful primates live in this region, and they don't believe in fearing man. They will readily break into houses to wreak havoc and steal food. You don't want to mess with a baboon; they are immensely powerful, with teeth scarcely inferior to those of a leopard. Conflicts between people and baboons can cause serious injuries on both sides. (Many people in this region have put bars on the windows and keep their doors locked, although for those who came from Johannesberg this can be annoying - it's exactly what they came to get away from!)

This is where Baboon Matters comes in. They encourage the villages to take appropriate precautions to keep the baboons away, but even more importantly, they have trained a large number of Baboon Monitors - locals who monitor the activities of the baboons. Aside from being a valuable means of employment in poverty-stricken South Africa, this is a huge help to solving the Big Baboon Problem. The Baboon Monitors are expert trackers who follow the baboons and encourage them to stay away from villages.

Of course, this huge project struggles for funding, and that's where the store comes in. You can buy baboon toys, baboon T-shirts, etc., etc. There are also some interesting artefacts on display, such as the preserved baboon fetus in jar. All in all, Baboon Matters is a wonderful and unique effort to help both people and animals.

Sporting with Leviathan

Two hours before sunrise this morning, I headed out to the Marina for a very special boat trip: an expedition to watch great white sharks predating on seals. But the weather forecast was grim: temperatures were dropping, the wind was building up, and rain was forecast along with sixteen-foot waves. We met on the dock with Rob, the captain (whose previous clients for these expeditions include Peter Benchley, author of Jaws) and the marine biologists who were going along, to discuss our options in light of the steadily worsening weather. It was clear that cage-diving with the sharks would be out of the question; as Rob put it, it would be like being inside a clothes-washing machine. But could we go out at all? We decided to risk it, and we could head back if conditions became too rough.

I was slightly alarmed by the fact that the boat was only about sixteen feet long. Some of the great white sharks in these parts grow bigger than that. I had watched a video of a small shark jumping out onto a large boat; if a big shark tried that with our boat, it would neatly sink us. Rob assured me that we would be very unlucky for that to happen, which didn't seem to answer my concern.

We loaded our gear onto the boat and headed out into the darkness. It was freezing; I was shivering despite wearing three jackets, gloves and a scarf. The waves were large, tossing the boat around as we surged out to sea. Would we get to observe our quarry?

At this point, I should probably explain what all this was about. The great white shark, of Jaws fame, is the largest carnivorous fish in the sea. They are rarely seen, but near Seal Island, in the Cape of Good Hope, they are not only reliably spotted, but are even seen engaging in a certain extroardinary behavior. They swim below seals, then launch themselves upwards to attack, with a force that sometimes takes them fully clear of the water. Rob's partner Chris was the first to observe this behavior some years ago, and they created a stunning National Geographic video special, entitled Air Sharks.

After about forty minutes, as the sun came up, we reached Seal Island. It was small, no more than a few hundred yards long, but the number of fur seals living on it was extraordinary; as I later discovered, there are eighty-four thousand of them living there. Many were sitting on the rocky island, surrounded by penguins and other seabirds, while others bobbed around in the surrounding waves. But in order to eat, they had to go fishing, and this meant venturing beyond the safety of the island to deeper water. The sharks knew this, which is why they came to these parts. Unlike other fish, great white sharks are warm-blooded, and they have to consume several seals a day in order to fuel their huge bodies.

We circled the island, watching the water intently. It was not long before someone yelled, "Predation, three o' clock!" We looked and saw a flurry of commotion in the water, but it was hard to make out details. A seal's flipper, a shark's tail, and lots of splashing. Then silence, as the birds flew down to feast upon the remnants. Shortly afterwards we witnessed another predation. We did not get a clear look this time either, but we did see the shocking sight of a fountain of foamy blood, some three feet high, spurting out of the sea as the shark hit its prey.

On our next sighting, a little later, we saw a little more. This time the seal, desperately seeking to escape its pursuer, leapt out of the water as it swam, porpoise-style. It was followed by the huge triangular dorsal fin of the shark, slicing through the water. This was over quickly, with little commotion; perhaps the shark had downed it in a single gulp.

A long time passed with no further sightings; then we saw the ultimate sight. A huge shark exploded out of the water. It was right there, straight out of Jaws: dark back, white belly, vast gaping mouth, and soulless black eyes. It landed back in the ocean with a tremendous splash, as another seal lost its life.

This was to be the last sighting of the morning, despite our trying to attract the sharks by pulling a dummy seal behind the boat. The weather was getting worse, and the sharks, thought to be sensitive to pressure changes, were probably going deep. Rob decided that it would be best to head back. I heartily agreed; in fact I was beginning to feel considerably nauseous at this point. As a precaution, I gulped down a motion-sickness pill, and promptly threw up my breakfast over the side of the boat.

Unfortunately, aside from the nausea, this had the effect of making my body-temperature plummet. In the already-freezing conditions, this made me shiver violently, feeling appallingly sick. Yet there was nothing to be done; I just had to tough it out all the way back. Finally we reached the hilly coast. "Not a moment too soon," I croaked as we approached the dock, and then as we pulled in, I leaned over the side and lost last night's dinner.

But it was worth it for the experience. Yesterday I had Esa einai el he-harim brought to life; today it was a verse from Barchi Nafshi, which we recited today for Rosh Chodesh. As part of celebrating the grandeur of creation, it comments upon the ocean: "This is the ocean, great and broad... where boats travel, and this Leviathan that You have formed, to sport in it."
And what a sport it is!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

"I lift my eyes up to the mountains..."

On the Aron HaKodesh at the shul here in Cape Town, it says, "Esa einay el ha-harim... I lift my eyes up to the mountains, where shall my help come from?" This famous verse, followed by "My help comes from God, Creator of Heavens on Earth" can be found in many shuls. However what makes it unique here is that over the Aron is a large window, through which one sees the gigantic mass of Table Mountain looming over the shul. Now that's what I call bringing a passuk to life!

First Impressions

Just as I suspected, there are lots of differences between Mombasa, Kenya and Cape Town, South Africa:

Mombasa, Kenya: Appallingly bad and bumpy roads.
Cape Town, South Africa: Highways with three lanes in each direction.

Mombasa, Kenya: Greeted by black Africans in native dress singing tribal songs.
Cape Town, South Africa: Greeted by white Africans saying shalom aleichem.

Mombasa, Kenya: The only form of contact with outside world is international phone calls, which almost never work.
Cape Town, South Africa: Aside from the phone, there is high-speed internet in the airport and at the home where I am staying until I join my group.

Mombasa, Kenya: Upon arrival, served exotic fruit juices.
Cape Town, South Africa: Upon arrival, served tea with milk at 4pm prompt.

Mombasa, Kenya: I have to keep the door to my room closed, because monkeys tend to come in and steal things.
Cape Town, South Africa: I don't have to keep the door to my room closed, because the family dog is exceptionally well-trained.

(From this point on, things can only get more exotic!)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Return to Africa!

I'm writing this from Ben-Gurion airport, as I await to board my flight to Africa. It's been ten years since I was last (and first) there, and this trip will be very different. Last time I went to Kenya; this time, I am traveling to South Africa, Zambia and Botswana. Last time, I went on safari as a participant; this time, I am ZooRabbi-in-residence for a large group, American Friends of Shaarei Tzedek. It's really extraordinary; as a kid, growing up in England, I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would actually ever visit Africa, and now I am going for the second time!
You can read my photo-journal from my Kenya safari here. I would like to be able to post a photo/video journal while I am on this trip, but from what I hear, getting online is not going to be easy, and certainly not a high-speed connection. But we'll see what we can do!
I'll be starting off in Cape Town, where I had made arrangements to go cage-diving with great white sharks on Thursday. Unfortunately, the forecast is for a raging gale with sixteen-foot waves (it's midwinter there), so this plan will probably have to be shelved. But if the weather picks up on Sunday, maybe I'll be able to do it then. (Insert joke here about how some people want to see me be thrown to the sharks.)
In my bag is something quite remarkable: a sefer Torah less than six inches tall! We'll be needing it when we're out in the bushveldt. I also had an interesting halachic question - should I be saying Morid HaTal, or Mashiv Ha-Ruach? After all, it is the winter there. My posek ruled that I should continue saying Morid HaTal, and said that even for native South Africans it's not clear that they should say Mashiv HaRuach.
So, I don't know when I'll next be posting, but it should be interesting!